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Coping with exam stress

A man meditating while sitting on grass surrounded by trees.

How can mindfulness help and why has it become so popular?

There are two ways in which mindfulness may be used to help with exams. One is called the “7/11″, the other “beditation”.

The 7/11 is a relaxation breathing exercise. Matching the counting to the breath, you breathe in through your nose for a count of seven, and out through your nose for a count of 11. As with many mindfulness techniques this helps focus your attention, in this instance you use the breath as an object of concentration. By focusing on the breath you become aware of the mind’s tendency to jump from one thing to another. The simple discipline of concentration brings us back to the present moment and all the richness of experience that it contains.

Beditation is simply the process of meditation whilst lying down. Meditation might sound slightly new world, but it is of course thousands of years old. On one level meditation is a simple yet powerful technique that effortlessly allows your mind to become calm and peaceful. Which is not a bad state to be in when you’re studying or in the exam room

What exactly is Mindfulness?

Although mindfulness has its roots in eastern philosophy, many acknowledge the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn from the Medical Centre at the University of Massachusetts as being the founder of the modern mindfulness movement. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as:

“paying attention, on purpose in the present moment non judgementally.”

If you imagine that there are two modes of attention, thinking and sensing. Attention often gets drawn to what’s wrong, what’s threatening, our attention scans for problems and this is for good reason, it is a primeval survival technique. This triggers the thinking part as you attempt to solve the problem. Now there is nothing wrong with this but the mind needs a balance and there is a time to think and a time to relax and sense.

By moving your attention to the present moment and into the sensing mode you will instantly become more relaxed. The 7/11 breathing and meditation techniques are just ways of helping you do this. Research is showing that there are huge benefits of spending some time in the sensing mode and not in the thinking mode.

How it helps with exam stress

Stress is often created by thinking what might happen if I fail, what happens if I am not good enough, or can’t answer this question? These are all examples of the thinking state of attention. To feel stressed is a perfectly natural reaction; it is the result of being faced with a challenge that initially, at least, looks impossible to overcome. But in an exam it is far from helpful, often cutting off your ability to think straight and sometimes paralysing your actions.

By using the 7/11 breathing techniques before the exam, to help you feel more relaxed, during the exam to stop a panic attack taking over, and even after the exam when you begin to wonder what you should have done but didn’t, can be incredibly helpful.

And meditation can help both in the short and long run, our mental health and intellectual skills are shaped by what we do with our attention, where we place our awareness. And of course intellectual skills are vital not just in the exam but whilst studying as well.

Is it just in the mind?

Brain-imaging studies show that mindfulness meditation can reliably and profoundly alter the structure and function of the brain and produce, for example, greater blood-flow to and a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotions. As well its impact on specific problems, mindfulness has been shown to have a very positive effect on intellectual skills, improving sustained attention, visual special memory, working memory and concentration.

Watch this short video more ways that mindfulness may help in exams.

Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning for Kaplan Financial, has been involved with training and educating finance professionals for over 20 years. He is especially interested in the process of learning and the exam skills and techniques that contribute towards success in the classroom and in life. Stuart has written two books – The E word – Kaplan’s Guide to Passing Exams and A student’s guide to writing Business Reports.